Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hard Passage

Hard Passage

"Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."

"Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.

"And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where " 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' Everyone will be salted with fire.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

A new pastor spent his first four days in town making personal visits to each member of his new congregation inviting them to come to his inaugural services.

The following Sunday the church was all but empty. Accordingly, the pastor placed a notice in the local newspapers, stating that, because the church was dead, it was everyone's duty to give it a decent Christian burial. The funeral would be held the following Sunday afternoon.

Morbidly curious, a large crowd turned out for the 'funeral.'

In front of the pulpit they saw a closed coffin which was covered in flowers. After the priest had delivered the eulogy, he opened the coffin and invited his congregation to come forward and pay their final respects to their dead church.

Dying to know what would represent the corpse of a 'dead church', all the people eagerly lined up to look in the coffin. Each 'mourner' peeped into the coffin then quickly turned away with a guilty, sheepish look.

In the coffin, tilted at the correct angle, was a large mirror

There are many “hard passages” in the Bible. Mark 9:49 is a pretty famous one.

There are also many “hard to follow” passages in the Bible. Mark 9:42-48 is perhaps the most famous of all.

Let’s follow it first, then we’ll get to the meaning of salt and fire.

This is one of the passages where Jesus quotes from the Torah and the Prophets (that’s the Old Testament to us). In Mark 9:42-48 he quotes from Isaiah 66:24.

Some versions have the quote after each verse:

“their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

Here Jesus is talking about hell – or more accurately about Gehenna, the everburning trash heap in the valley of Hinnon where trash and dead criminals were taken to be burned. Dante and Milton aside, the literal Hell of the bible – Gehenna – seems to be a pretty boring place, where one is simply consumed in fire forever.

He’s also talking about rebels against God, however – the full Isaiah quote is “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” That is, those who allow their bodies – that is the physical world – to get in the way of God are rebelling against God and “will be loathsome to all mankind.” That’s while they’re rotting and being eaten by worms and burning eternally.

So Jesus gives us this vision of a rather unpleasant existence and says it is better to be maimed than damned.

It is better to give up a part of our life – a part of our body – than to lose all of it to rot and fire.

Indeed, Paul has this in mind when in Romans 12:1 he tells us “to offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices” as our worship of God. This sentiment is behind Jesus’ constant exhortation that we “take up our cross and follow [him].”

So, in reality, Jesus is not telling us anything new in this “hard to follow” passage.

It’s just that we – like the apostles – always have a hard time following Jesus’ difficult advice and so every time he repeats it, it’s like we’re hearing it for the first time.

But then we get to that second part:

“and everyone will be salted with fire.”


Is this the same fire of Gehenna? Not quite. In Leviticus, God instructs the Israelites to “season all [their] grain offerings with salt.”

That is, the sacrifices to God were not acceptable unless they had been salted – had been seasoned.

So we – God’s sacrifices – will be salted with fire.

We will be seasoned with fire – with trials. “Refiner’s fire” is one of the songs the praise band sang this morning. Malachi, Zechariah, and 1 Corinthians all refer to God using fire to refine us.

And notice how Jesus puts it: “salted with fire.”

You know how salt works, right? When my mother was teaching me how to cook she told me to be careful with the spices I used but to be especially careful with salt. “You can always put more salt in,” she said, “but it’s awfully hard to take extra salt out.”

We just use a dash – a quarter teaspoon – a pinch. A little is enough.

The “fire that refines” is not the fire of the trashheap of Gehenna. It is a temporary fire.

Even if it were, like Dante imagined in Purgatorio, to last for a thousand years, what is a thousand years, compared to eternity?

But our refining fires never last that long, do they?

Even if we are miserable 24-7 from the day we are born until the day we die at the very outside we’re only miserable for 120 years, most folks about half that.

But who is miserable all the time? Even folks that don’t believe in silver linings have to look for the grey in the clouds some days.

And usually, misery is our own choice. If you don’t believe that, there is a nice book with a three-letter title near the mid-point of the Old Testament you should probably read again. The KJV version of Job is probably one of the loveliest pieces of writing in the English language, but you can read it in any old version if you want.

But our trials and tribulations, they never last very long. A day, maybe a week? Perhaps your trial even lasts an entire year. What is one year in your life to the seventy or eighty or ninety you will live? You sleep more than that. By the time you’re sixty, you will have slept for about twenty years.

When you consider that it’s no wonder generational gaps exist. Teenagers think that everything they do is SO important, but their grandparents just shrug and say, meh – I’ve slept longer than you’ve been alive.

The point is that our trials by fire – the fire than refines us are a salting.

We are sprinkled, seasoned, salted with fire so that our dross may be burned away and we may be pure sacrifices for God.

That’s what Jesus is telling us to do with our own bodies.

He’s giving us a warning. Either you remove the log from your own eye (to mix biblical allusions) or God will do it for you.

If you are unwilling to remove that hand that causes you to sin, do not be surprised when, salting you with the fire of tribulation, God removes it for you.

Now, let’s think for a moment about what this passage means for our church.

I don’t mean The Church. I mean our church – the Jacksonville Church of the Brethren.

I think if we were to be given a diagnosis it would be “failure to thrive.”

That is, we’re here, we’ve got the space, we’ve got the resources, we’ve got people who are driven to serve

and yet we don’t seem to have anything else.

What is this trial, brothers and sisters?

What limb is causing us to stumble? What millstone is around our necks? What log is in our eye?

I read a passage online while researching this message.

A woman spoke about what she wanted in a church:

Men preaching and speaking,

no praise band,

no karaoke music,

lots of scripture,

people dressed up,

no announcements,

no grungy looking kids

And as I read this, apart from thinking the lady didn’t sound like much fun, I thought to myself – wow, lady, what you should be saying is “God has led me to the church where I am. This is what I can do to make it better serve God.”

We’ve been through a six-month exploratory process now, brothers and sisters. Next Sunday, we’ll have Reverend Jim here, preaching the word. I don’t know what will happen the Sunday after that or the Sunday after that

and what is bad about that is that I don’t think any of you do, either.

At least, none of you has told me, if you do.

Everyone who has talked to us about the survival – the revival of our church has said we – as the last members of a dying congregation have got to stand up – we can’t take our trials sitting down – we have got to stand up and come forth and we HAVE to be God’s hands working in this Church.

We can’t sit around and wait. Jesus said the end would come like a thief in the night and that we should be always on our guard.

We’ll we’ve let our guard down. When was the last time you brought someone to church?

I don’t mean invited. I mean brought. Made them come. I keep inviting my friends but leaving it at that. I don’t think that’s enough.

Tell a friend they’re coming next Sunday. Go by their house on the way here. Tell them to come over with their spouse or with their kids and pretend you’re young again and have a sleep over. Wake them up and feed them and bring them here.

Do we know our neighbors right here in Murray Hill? Why not? What can we do to get them here? Have we knocked on their doors? Have we truly opened ours?

Why not? What are we afraid of? What are we hiding?

Even little children know the song “This Little Light of Mine.” Why are we hiding our light in these concrete-block walls?

I want everyone to come up here and pray together. I don’t care what we say to start off with. But we should end whatever we say with this: “Lord, in Jesus’ name we give our lives to you and to your church.”

And when you feel like it’s time to let go, we’ll stop praying – but then I want you to tell at least two people here today what you can do for God right here in this church.

And I want these seats to be full next Sunday.

Come pray together, brothers and sisters.

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