Saturday, September 26, 2009

B, Pentecost 17 Proper 21 - Mark 9:42-50 "A Salted Christian"

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Hell, hell, hell! When the Word of God mentions something in triplicate you and I are called to take notice. Jesus speaks to the seriousness of sin.
First he addresses the consequences of our causing someone else to sin, saying, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea." (Mark 9:42)
Picture this millstone or something just as large or heavy, like a flywheel from an old motor, or a wheel hub from a large tractor. Now picture it plunging into the ocean, the rattle of chain whipping off the deck following the weighty object, see the other end of the chain attached to you. You're going to be pulled in too, sinking down, down, down into the salty depths of a cold dark deep ocean to die.
What an ugly thought! It's enough to send a shiver up your spine — leave you with a bad taste in the mouth. No wonder the Hebrews understood the depths of the sea as Sheol — a hellish place to be avoided. And Jesus begins his three part warning on sin and hell with this picture.
He then moves from causing someone else to sin, to causing ourselves to sin. Cut off your hand, cut off your foot, or gouge out your eye if they're going to cause you to sin. Imagine doing that?
There was once a fellow clearing scrub, miles from anywhere, and as he bent down a highly venomous snake bit him on the thumb. So in an act of courage he took an axe and chopped off his thumb. He chose a painful life with the hope of recovery without a thumb, rather than a horrible death all alone out in the scrub.
In the same way Jesus says …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.' (Mark 9:43-48)
The need to do such terrible things points out hell is real, and it's a place where pain, suffering, and terror go on, and on, and on.
So we hear these words to our discomfort. They make us squirm in our thoughts, in our imaginations, and in knowledge of hell's true reality. Jesus makes plain the fiery eternal death that never stops burning as opposed to eternal life and entry into the kingdom of God.
Then Jesus says something strange, "For everyone will be salted with fire". (Mark 9:49) Is Jesus just talking about "all" those going to hell, or is he talking about "us" too? We know hell is a place of fire and suffering, but "salted with fire", what is Jesus talking about?
So what is salt? In its nature it's salty. Salty soil leaves plant life dead. Salt leaves a place desolate. Salt hardens the arteries and causes problems for us too. Those who go to hell will surely be assaulted with fire. To be salted with fire, sounds like Lot's wife and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah to whom she turned and observed as they all were consumed by burning sulphur and turned into salt.
But Jesus then says, "Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (Mark 9:50)
Perhaps it is you and I who are salted with fire. After all we have heard in the last couple of minutes about hell, and had our ears honed and our attention focused so that we ask in ourselves, "How can I avoid going to hell?"
So salt here is a good thing! Salt if it stays salty is beneficial for us and with this salt in us Jesus commands us to be at peace with each other.
Salt is an interesting element. Unlike any other condiment it never loses its quality. Leave salt out in the weather and it's always salty. Salt's longevity not only sustains itself but it preserves other things too. Every cook knows that salt preserves. But not only that, it adds flavour as well. Adding salt makes things taste, but too much can make something taste ghastly.
We know too much salt in our diet can be harmful, but the medical fraternity use salt for good. In fact, every person needs about seven tablespoons of salt per every fifty kilos of body weight within to survive. If there is not enough salt in your system your health will suffer.
Our bodies need water but our bodily cells have no way of capturing or attracting water to them. Therefore, the body turns salt into ions or electrolytes allowing the cells to move ions around and water then follows the ions. So the cells direct where the ions go, the water follows and this determines where the fluids go. We need salt in us to carry the water our bodies need. Therefore, doctors use saline or salt solutions to rehydrate the human body when one is critically ill.
Saline solutions are also used to clean wounds in just the same way as swimming in the ocean is good for cleansing the body of bacteria and healing any minor skin irritations we might have. And we've all heard a good dose of the salts will clean us out, referring to a laxative cleansing with magnesium sulphate such as Epsom salts.
There is also the expression, "He is the salt of the earth, she is the salt of the earth, or you are the salt of the earth." When we hear this we know someone's saying it's a good thing. This saying is common and it comes directly from Matthew chapter five.
So if we're the salt of the world and we have been salted with fire. Perhaps we have been cleansed with salt, and preserved with salt and fire. We might feel the sting of this salt on us as it cleanses us, we might feel we have been assaulted with fire, especially as we hear Jesus say we may as well tie a rock around our necks and be thrown into the brine if we cause a child to sin, or we should sacrifice body parts to avoid the taste of bitter suffering and death. At times we all feel as though we are assaulted believers?
But this preservation and cleansing with salt is not an assault on us. We are salted believers. We are shown hell, death, and our sin. Salt is rubbed into our wounds for healing even though it causes pain.
We here in Mark that salt is good. Salt is a valuable commodity in the ancient world and in the bible too. In Numbers 18 and 2 Chronicles 13 the Israelites make covenants of salt and in the temple offerings were salted (Lev 2:13). In the making of incense God commanded the ingredients to be rubbed with salt saying, "make incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy". (Exodus 30:35) And it might surprise us to hear that God allowed Elisha to heal Jericho's water supply with salt years after the place had been cursed when Israel first enter Canaan. (2 Kings 2:19-22)
In these days salt was to seal or to preserve, to make pure and holy. Salt was used to enhance or lift other things in the same way it flavours and seasons our food.
The salt we use today is pure, but in Jesus' day it was not refined and still had other elements in it too. If salt had a bad taste or was not salty Jesus asks how could one make it salty again? If salt wasn't salty, chances were its salt content was low and other contaminates like gypsum existed!
So how could salt be lifted or seasoned again? How could one restore salt to its taste enhancing quality once more? How do we get salt in ourselves, as Jesus commands? Salt which preserves and cleanses me and makes me pure and holy?
Taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed are those who take refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8) Jesus Christ is our salt; he is the salt of the earth. He gives full flavour to us through his Word and Sacraments. Having been lifted up and salted with fire Jesus lifts us up in baptism and continues to preserve us in the full flavour of our humanity which is continually contaminated by sin.
At the beginning of Mark chapter nine just after Jesus had forewarned the apostles of his assaulted death on the cross, he says to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power." (Mark 9:1)
In fact, all of us who have been baptised and believe our baptism, have been salted by and in Christ. We're given the kingdom of God to taste in power over eternal death. Through the cross Christ Jesus has made his assault on hell, the devil, death, and our sin, and we celebrate in his flavoursome victory.
Sin leaves us very bland people, but sin, death, and the devil are cleansed from us and we're being lifted up in Christ. Like salt we're seasoned with all the flavour of Christ.
Therefore, Paul says to the Colossians and us, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." (Colossians 4:6)
So let's be the salt which seasons the world! Let's be at peace with each other sharing the full flavour of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.